Coming off a 30-6 shutdown win at Northwestern, the Division Champion Spartans (10-1) return home for Senior Day and the Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-3) at noon this Saturday.
Pat Fitzgerald gave us an outside perspective about this unit last week in telling us they have become more dependable and productive because of the Offensive Line and Connor Cook’s improvement. Without that healthy package, and a side of Receivers not dropping the ball as much, this unit would be hurting the Spartans more than helping them. They’ve gone from the team’s chief hindrance, to doing no significant harm, to now contributing to another double digit win total. In this bounce back season, they saved their transformation for us to see in-season. That’s a pretty rare feat.
Jeremy Langford spoke loudly again last Saturday. Earlier this season it looked to some (including this guy) that Langford may not have the power necessary to run well against better Big Ten opponents. To his and the improving Offensive Line’s credit, that hasn’t been a concern. The ultimate test will come next week against the serious talent in Ohio St.’s front-seven, but we can already tell they’ve taken a serious step forward.
Health has certainly helped the progress up as this line has been much healthier this year than in Dantonio’s past. They’re led heavily by 5th year Senior-Captain Blake Treadwell. Coach D has sent off hundreds of Seniors during his coaching career, but you could place a heavy bet the Treadwell is one of his all-time favorites. “Basically I’ve seen a young person grow from infancy to manhood, and it’s been an unbelievable process,” Dantonio told us earlier this week. Though he’s looking forward to the entire Senior class send off, there’s no doubt standing alongside Don and Lola Treadwell will be unique. “It will be very emotional.”
The Co-Coordinator experiment didn’t work too well for the Offense early in the season, hasn’t been completely seamless since, but you’d have to say at this point it’s working a bit better. Who knows what will adjustments will be made in the off season, but we have seen a major upgrade in the running game (more on that later) and their overall production continues to keep climbing. After plummeting into the 100s in Total Offense the Spartans are now ranked 80th, and stand 56th in Scoring Offense. As we’ve over the past two seasons, just an average Offense would be needed for this team to have a good year. The better they could get, the better the opportunity to catch Roses in Pasadena.
This week is about keeping the momentum and sharpening the saw as they prepare to “chase it” in Indy. There’s still a higher gear this Offense can find this year, as evidenced by the clock management issues they’ve faced over the past couple of weeks. “We need better communication,” Dantonio explained. When looking back at last week’s confusion on the final drive of the 1st Half he said a combination of the weather, down and distance, and then ball spot by the Officials all created the difficulty there. Outside of tightening that up, the Offense just needs to keep moving in the right direction.
We’re running out of good things to say about this unit just as we approach the end of the season, but Gophers Head Coach Jerry Kill can’t say enough about these Spartan Dawgs. “If you’ve got great corners and you can play man coverage and press man, that makes your defense awful good,” he boiled down. He went on to compliment the players’ effort and the staff’s recruiting, but pointed to execution as a difference maker. “I think what makes them special is they just tackle very well.”
Perhaps their most impressive feat has been a sustained high level of intensity and focus. A powerful running attack, as the Gophers hope to bring to East Lansing this week, tries to wear down an opponent as the game goes on. As Nick Saban told 60 Minutes earlier this fall, you wear a team down in the 3rd and 4th Quarter, not in the early ones. That’s the goal of the Gophers running game, but such an approach hasn’t worked too well these Dawgs so far.
Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah is an elite race horse type back, and ran the ball on this unit better than anyone else has all year. Though the Gophers bring the 27th best rushing attack with them to town, they know they’re running into the country’s best rushing Defense, and by a wide margin. There’s no reason to expect this unit to come out with anything less than they have all year, looking to shut down Minnesota and keep them out of the End Zone for the day. It wouldn’t be fair to expect a shutout, but look how infrequently opponents have found the End Zone on this unit this year. They’ve allowed just 43 points in the last 5 games.
Last week’s highlight play came for an unfortunate reason as Isaiah Lewis was ejected early for Targeting, aka the “Clowney Rule.” After Northwestern’s Quarterback Kain Colter stepped out and caught a pass, Lewis went down to make the hit but led with the crown of his helmet at the same time as Colter went down towards the turf. The result wasn’t pretty as Colter’s head snapped back hard and he was actually knocked out of the game for good. After the controversial rule was applied to the Spartan Senior, Lewis was out of the game as well.
Was Lewis unlucky because of the way Colter went down? No question. Did Colter do as much to create the collision as Lewis did? It’s fair to say that he did. But the rule is now there to prevent Defenders from leading with the crown in that situation, which Lewis did, and there wasn’t any room to wiggle out of it. Understandably, many think the call was bad and the rule was worse, but if Lewis kept his head up to finish the tackle, he would’ve stayed in the game. Defenders simply cannot put their head down like that anymore to make those kinds of hits. It is changing the way the game is played, and old timers will tell you it’s soon going to look more like the pushing contests of the black and white-still picture era. Right or wrong, it was hopefully a learning experience and caution for this unit. They can’t as easily afford to lose a starter in post season play.
The Seniors on this unit deserve credit for transitioning this unit from really good to great. They’re far more solid and effective now than they were even with an All-American and future College Football Hall of Famer Greg Jones leading the way. Their legacy will be raising that bar even higher and elevating what it means to be a true Spartan Dawg. As much as they’ll lose to graduation and the NFL after this year, there are plenty of young pups waiting for their time to eat, as Demetrius Cox flashed while filling in for Lewis last Saturday. Before their time arrives though, there’s one more chance to dominate in front of the Spartan Stadium faithful, and then the chance for Lewis to get redemption in Indianapolis.
Mike Sadler’s final attempt at an All-American regular season will come against a decent opponent in the Golden Gophers, and on his home turf. “He’s been irreplaceable, is the way I would describe him,” Dantonio said earlier this week. Sadler’s contribution to the Spartans’ overwhelming success in the past couple of years was perhaps first evident at Ohio St. two seasons ago. Before many TV viewers could watch the game because the prior one had run over, Sadler saved the day by retrieving an errant snap and getting off some kind of punt in Columbus. Many remember that game as the birth of the “Water Boy” Denicos Allen, but the astute fan also remembers Sadler’s slide and save.
“We believe the punt is the most important play in football because of the average number of yards you can pick up in one single play,” Dantonio proclaimed about a play most fans pay less attention to. Though Sadler’s been far busier than Spartan Nation would’ve liked, especially earlier this season, he probably wouldn’t have been a semi-finalist for the Ray Guy award and still up for All-American honors without the Offenses’ early slog. His absence from the finalists list for the Guy award may have caught Coach D and Spartan Football by surprise. “With leading the nation in punting down inside the 10 and then also being the second leading punter in this conference,” he noted.
Perhaps the best news about Sadler is that he has another year of eligibility and fake punts in him. He’s been the star of this unit that underperformed early and then showed up when it counted most against Nebraska to clinch the Division. The future is bright across this group because of Dantonio’s commitment to put his best players on both sides of the kicking game and their relative youth across the board. There won’t be too many Seniors who will leave Special Teams that can’t adequately be replaced right away. That is just another tip of the cap to the program’s depth and prospects for the middle portion of the decade.
To say 2013 started off slow would be an understatement. Football fire alarms were sounding as the Offense began stagnant and the Special Teams couldn’t get out of second gear. This was a one unit team that looked to have an 8 win regular season for a ceiling. Oh, how times have changed. “Our focus has to be on Minnesota and playing well in this game,” Dantonio cautioned about this Saturday. “We’ve always tried to stay in the present,” he added. It’s hard to disagree right now.
“I don’t think people realize how good a job he’s done and he’s done it through recruiting, and a great coaching staff,” Coach Kill said about the program Mark Dantonio has built in East Lansing. So I guess Kill doesn’t judge programs on their recruiting and pre-season rankings, but on their win-loss record instead? He may be onto something there. Saturday if the Spartans take care of business, Dantonio should take his deepest bow yet since becoming the leader. He will have completed a bounce back 2013 that essentially erased the 2012 let down while telling those that saw his prior success as just a little happy blip for a program that could never sustain a long run the big boys to stuff it well for their Thanksgiving.
Since we’re dishing out thanks, let’s realize that there’s no sniff of a Division Title, a Rose Bowl bid, or even a premier Florida Bowl without the influx of Jim Bollman. Bollman’s hire was mocked by a portion of the country and Big Ten foot print after Mark Dantonio announced he’d be settling back in East Lansing. Bollman didn’t fire back, hasn’t made a lot of noise publicly, but has left his mark on the field. The Offensive Line under his leadership as a Co-Coordinator and Running Game guru is better than it’s ever been under Mark Dantonio, with room to grow in the future.
That impact was really first felt in the loss at Notre Dame. MSU dominated that side of the line of scrimmage for the first time in a couple years in that rivalry game. At the same time, more players were getting healthy. When injury killed MSU last year up front, Bollman suddenly had about seven guys that could step in and keep the level of play consistent. We’ll find out how they measure up against top competition in the coming post-season, but Spartan Nation already knows how good Bollman was for this team and hopes he’s here for the long run.
Mark Dantonio hinted that the Spartans might be playing Minnesota to earn a BCS birth this weekend, wisely trying to get out in front of a potential slip out of the BCS at-large mix should the Spartans lose to the Buckeyes in the Title Game. Some don’t think it will matter, that the Big Ten won’t have two teams in the BCS this year unless MSU beats Ohio St. anyways. Others speculate that the Orange Bowl’s coming relationship with the Big Ten has already taken care of that issue behind closed doors. Either way, the Spartans know they must dominate in all three phases this Saturday to put their best foot forward. Even a slow start in tough November conditions will be scrutinized by the all too influential four letter network media. Don’t expect that to be felt as pressure by this team, but as their next opportunity to prove to the masses that Spartan Football is back on the national scene, here to stay, and ready to take on all comers.
P.A.T. (Perhaps Another Thought…)
- As the BCS era comes to a close, let’s see final round of chaos. I’m not talking about the kind that came with the decision to rematch two teams that had played earlier in the year (LSU vs. Alabama ’12), I’m talking about the likes that sent Rich Rodriguez all the way from taking West Virginia to the Title Game to being the fifth choice or so to end on the Michigan Head Coach. That was the year of ultimate chaos as the 4-TD favorite Mountaineers, at home, choked it all away to Pitt in the Backyard Brawl. I can still remember how red Rod’s face got in the Morgantown frost.
- It’s been asked whether Ohio St. should sit any starters this week or be very selective in how much they play in their game with Michigan in Ann Arbor this Saturday. Bet on Urban Meyer laying out the simple solution to this issue: get ahead more than 4 scores in the 1st Half and then work in the 2s, 3s, and 4s. Nothing would set the table for an era of Urban dominance over Baby Blue than getting plenty of playing time for back end of the roster in “The Game.”
- Chris Borland’s not a finalist for the Butkus Award, Ameer Abdullah isn’t up for the Doak Walker, and Mike Sadler’s not a finalist for the Ray Guy Award. Should we be surprised? Probably not. The Home Depot College Football Awards are broadcast, if not controlled, by ESPN. You can do the math from here.